The Bootleg: You got extended playing time more and more as the year went on last season. How did you work yourself into that rotation?
Ben Gardner: Last year was all about finding a role for myself. I came in undersized and struggled to find time early on. But as the year went on, I found a role for myself in the nickel package as a pass rusher, and learned a lot from Brian Bulcke, Sione Fua and Chester McGlockton, and really polished my pass rush moves, so I was able to contribute that way.
TB: With that in mind, are you going into this year working more on your run defense? Is there a specific area you're targeting?
BG: I'm just working to become a more complete player. I've gained some weight, gained about 15 pounds since last season. I'm trying to become more stout in the run game while also maintaining my quickness to be able to get after the quarterback.
TB: Let's talk a little about the defensive end battle. You're working with the first team now. Have you been told that it's yours to lose, or is it still very much an open competition?
BG: The way I see it, it's an open battle. We have some talent there. Josh Mauro came with me in my class. He's a big guy, a strong guy. He's going to contribute. Henry Anderson is a really athletic kid, he'll be a redshirt freshman next year. And Eddie Plantaric is working, so is Jacob Gowan, so we have guys who are all fighting for that same spot, so I'm going to come out here every day and try and do my best to help the team.
TB: Do you sense a change after switching coordinators? Randy Hart is still here, but Vic Fangio is gone. Do you see some difference, or is it pretty similar to last year?
BG: It's actually really similar. That's a good thing; we've kept as much consistency as we could. Coach Fangio is gone to the Niners, but Coach Tarver has come in and brought a lot of energy. Coach Mason knows our stuff, and Coach Hart, he's one of kind. So we're as similar to our defense last year as you could hope for after changing coordinators, and it has helped us coming out here in the spring. We're pretty sharp, compared to where we were last year.
TB: Is there a coordinator—Mason or Tarver—who is working more with the defensive line, or is it mainly just Hart?
BG: It's really divided up. Hart is with the defensive line, Tarver is with the linebackers and Mason is with the DBs. For playcalling, that's Tarver and Mason. Coach Hart is a technician down on the defensive line. He makes sure we're doing everything right and running and giving great effort. I love his coaching style.
TB: You were doing some long snapping on Monday. Are you sliding in there?
BG: I long snapped for four years in high school, and did a little bit of it here and there last year. Right now, we don't have a No. 2 long snapper. They say they're trying to bring one in, but if they can't do that, then I'd be happy to fill that role as a backup long snapper. Hopefully nothing happens to Andrew Fowler, but I'm pretty confident in my abilities there.
TB: In general, on both offense and defense, you're losing some key senior starters. How has the vibe been around practice so far? Which guys are stepping up? Do you see yourself as one of those guys?
BG: Like you said, we lost a lot of guys, both offensively and defensively, starting with the offensive line. That was the heart and soul of our team last year. Chase Beeler, Andrew Phillips and Derek Hall are all gone, but Moose Martin and David DeCastro are stepping up and they're going to be fine. They'll hit the ground running. Defensively, Fua was the rock of our defense, setting the point. But Terrence Stephens is more than capable of filling in; he's a big, strong kid. Shayne Skov is the leader of our defense, and with Chase Thomas, Michael Thomas and Delano Howell, we have guys who bring energy every day and make sure we're on our game.
TB: How has it been so far this offseason, between 6 a.m. workouts and these practice sessions?
BG: It's been great. The energy has been high. Guys coming out and trying to get better everyday. Couldn't ask for more in the 6 o'clocks, and now it's all about coming out here, competing with the offense everyday, and making each other better.
TB: With the offensive line changeover, have you seen a difference in practice?
BG: Surprisingly, no. I think they've done a really good job bringing their physicality to the table once again. Today [Ed. note: Friday, February 25] was the first day of pads, and pads were popping out there. I'd expect nothing less. We're deep on the offensive line. We've been bringing in recruits, and they're big guys, strong guys, and they're well-coached. So I don't expect much of a drop off there.
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